Our Inevitable Descent into Censorship: A story that begins with surveillance

“The “spiral of silence” is a well-researched phenomenon in which people suppress unpopular opinions to fit in and avoid social isolation. It has been looked at in the context of social media and the echo-chamber effect, in which we tailor our opinions to fit the online activity of our Facebook and Twitter friends. But this study adds a new layer by explicitly examining how government surveillance affects self-censorship.”

Elizabeth Stoycheff, assistant professor at Wayne State University and the lead researcher of a recent study that “shows that knowledge of government surveillance causes people to self-censor their dissenting opinions online” was “disturbed by the findings.”  The study–published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly and reported by the Washington Post–scruitinized “the effects of subtle reminders of mass surveillance on its subjects” where “the majority of participants reacted by suppressing opinions that they perceived to be in the minority.”  Stoycheff said that “participants who shared the “nothing to hide” belief, those who tended to support mass surveillance as necessary for national security, were the most likely to silence their minority opinions.”  Mass surveillance silences minority opinions, according to study (Karen Turner, Washington Post)

She further remarked that “the fact that the ‘nothing to hide’ individuals experience a significant chilling effect speaks to how online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one’s actions. It’s about a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image, in private, and now, in search histories and metadata.”

With an almost lethargic sense of irony, I was pretty dispassionate about this tiresome conclusion.  Fear of being judged is hardly a novel revelation.  Think back to high school, someone was always watching or being meticulously judged for dressing funny, acting strange, or generally being out right weird.  Guilty.

I was never very good at censoring myself and still (clearly) have a penchant for being borderline criminally outspoken.  So, censorship.  What does it look like as it evolves in a modern digital age?  How does surveillance play a role in the devolution of the unhindered flow of ideas?  Wait, why was I not in a rage about this?   My critical thinking brain triggered and thus began my barfly research and blogging tendency.

As I thought through my feelings on the subject of surveillance and began to allow my mind to wander, I was reminded of Ray Bradbury.  I began to search the Internet for his well-documented suspicion for ebooks, allegedly commenting that e-books “smell like burned fuel.”  For anyone unfamiliar, this is a reference to his acutely accurate work “Fahrenheit 451”.  If you have not yet read it, I suggest picking up a hard copy as it is best when you have the fuel to fire in hands when pondering the very idea of burning a book.  The well-articulated summary by the Idaho Commison for Libraries:  “Fahrenheit 451 depicts a near future where television families replace human relationships and books are forbidden—not because of government regulation but by society’s passive consent” (emphasis added).

When contemporary publishers refused to enter into any contacts without digital publishing rights, Bradbury eventually acquiesced to the publication of some of his works. Within the annals of Internet archives, I found  another Washington Post article:   Dreams of Ray Bradbury: Predictions that came true.  (It is moments like these that the Internet makes it a challenge to see it as a bonfire of the lazy.  But, it truly is.)

The article highlights Bradbury’s idea that  electronic surveillance also appeares in his work “way before closed-circuit television became a fixture in cities around the world” and how  “he was early in warning people about how surveillance could be abused — worries that echo today.”

The idea of electronic surveillance is not a new concept, nor is the human paranoid reaction to it.  The interesting and troubling reaction is not new either, and that is what is so troubling.  After all, it’s much more socially acceptable to accept and portray a sense of apathy toward electronic surveillance, than to shake one’s fist toward the sky in suspicious disdain for Big Brother in the tenor of a conspiracy theorist.  Wait, isn’t that the whole point of the constitutional protections afforded we Americans in the First Amendment of our beloved and oft misinterpreted Constitution?

As the Washington Post article suggests, people are ‘chilled’ at the idea of being watched, monitored by a nameless, faceless actor behind a remote device with a watchful eye.  If human nature has taught us anything, it’s that we bully.  We struggle to find a voice and use all available ammunition to obtain and keep power.  The scrutinizing eye of surveillance forced our subconscious to revisit this revelation, daily.

Another observation made in the Washington Post article suggested that, in  ““Sound of Thunder,” Bradbury portrayed how changing one small thing in history could have larger, unpredictable effects on what was to come,” the butterfly effect, citing an example of “a man on a safari to the past steps on a butterfly, and the insect’s death drastically changes the future.””  Now, this is a difficult theory to prove, at least it is for this lazy writer….so, hang on with me in this handbasket and I promise to make this quick and relatively painless.

With open access to content online, and so much noise drowning out the important messages and diluting the truth of just about anything and everything, what if the butterfly affect were considered in a literary content context?  Historically,  printed books were a tangible, unchanging document, recording a perspective, forever frozen in time as an edition (that is until it becomes fuel to political fires).  E-publishing may reveal this in the background source code, but do we know for sure?  Do we know how to find it?  Is anyone checking?  The days of collecting first editions is rapidly changing and not for the better.

Now, ponder this, if the ebook is altered or ‘corrected’ in anyway, how do we know?  How will future generations know that anything has changed?  Bradbury’s butterly effect begs the question:  What effect would changing a small detail in the history of Holden Caufield’s journey in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye have on the outcome of the story or the reader’s perception of the character?  Or what if the Story of Anne Frank were simply no longer published?  Bradbury once said “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury, Reader’s Digest, 1994.

Digitizing books and the planned obsolescence of hard copy print media is a damn good start.  With the protection and effective use of rights protected by intellectual property law, the lessons learned from Limewire and Napster, among others, licensing becomes much easier to control and becomes revocable in an instant from anywhere, regardless of the right purchased.  Licenses are revocable.

The danger posed by technological advances that promote surveillance and censorship lies in the lessons learned in Fahrenheit 451:  passive consent. Censoring yourself, even subconsciously, as a fear response learned from past experiences or observations of social ridicule is a natural response to being scrutinized.  If we begin censoring ourselves and passively allow technological control of content without oversight, we risk losing the truth of history to a manipulated and intentionally triggered butterfly effect.  Until the day comes that books become illegal, you’ll see me walking along the dark streets of my fine country with book in hand and my mouth shut.






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